A woman speaks on her phone in Daegu, where face masks are almost ubiquitous. Photo: AFP

SEOUL, South Korea – On a day when South Korea’s confirmed Covid-19 cases were approaching 1,000, the US Center for Disease Control raised its travel advisory for the country to its highest level, Level 3.

The CDC advised all Americans to “avoid non-essential travel” to South Korea, a close US ally, adding that there was “widespread community transmission,” on 24 February, US-time.

A similar Level 3 travel advisory had been posted by the CDC about travel to China on January 6. The US State Department subsequently issued a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory on February 2.

Italy, Iran and Japan are subject to Level 2 travel advisories from the CDC, suggesting travelers “take enhanced precautions.”

Although South Korea has a well-regarded national health service, and Asia Times was impressed by the medical staff and processes it witnessed in Daegu, the city most affected by the outbreak, on Friday the US CDC said “there is limited access to adequate medical care in affected areas.”

On Tuesday morning, South Korea’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention had reported a nationwide total of 893 cases. The KCDC updates nationwide cases twice daily. The vast majority of cases – some 69% nationwide, as of Tuesday morning – were restricted to the city of Daegu, in the southeast, and its surrounding area.

South Korea’s presidential office, the Blue House, had no official response to the US CDC announcement.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told Asia Times that her ministry’s only response was to reassure locals that the warning would have no influence over South Koreans’ travel to the United States.

“I think the CDC is essentially erring on the side of prudence,” said Ogan Gurel, a non-practicing American doctor based in South Korea. “I think the next few days – to see how Korea handles this – will decide if the US goes to the next step, which is a travel ban, which could be catastrophic”

Meanwhile, the 28,500-strong US Forces Korea is exercising considerable restraint on its members. According to the command’s website, only “mission-essential travel” is permitted to Daegu, with special authorization, and all off-installation travel “should be minimized.”

South Korea on Sunday raised its own virus alert to red, the highest level.

On Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with his senior secretaries and a group of academic specialists in infectious diseases. He said the government was “speeding up screening and diagnostic testing of the entire congregation of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.”

The church is headquartered in Daegu. A “mass spreader” was a member of the congregation in its mass services, leading to a chain infection and making the church the heart of South Korea’s outbreak.